In the future, when people look back at Jerry Kill’s rebuilding process at Minnesota, Saturday’s game will stand out. The Golden Gophers came back from a 14-point deficit to beat Nebraska, one of the early-season Big Ten favorites, 28-24 on the road. It sparked discussion at the postgame news conference of where Minnesota is now -- a legitimate Big Ten contender -- versus where it was a few years ago. And those two places are drastically different."It's telling us that we have made tremendous strides and we have worked hard in the offseason,” junior defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun said after the game. “I came here two years ago and we got smashed, and right now two years later it's a completely different team with a completely different feeling."
Now, Minnesota has something a little more tangible to prove its progress -- its first ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 since 2008. The Gophers have knocked on the door of the poll a couple times this season, but finally broke into the top 25 on Sunday, coming in at No. 22. When accounting for others receiving votes in last week’s poll, it is the biggest jump any team made this week.
Kill was hired by Minnesota to try to resurrect the struggling program in 2010. His first season, the Gophers went 3-9, but have steadily improved in two bowl seasons since. With signs pointing up, Kill signed an extension through 2018 before this season. Now, at 8-3 overall and 5-2 in the Big Ten, they are guaranteed their best conference record since 2003, and just need a win against Wisconsin to reach the Big Ten championship game.
The Minnesota cause has gained some steam in the past three weeks. Earlier in the season, the Gophers were just outside the poll after a 5-0 start, but fell back after a close loss at Illinois. They rebounded from that with a 51-14 blowout of Iowa, then hung with Ohio State before eventually falling by a touchdown.Then came Saturday’s big statement. Nebraska, ranked No. 21 in the AP poll and No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings, led 21-7 at halftime. Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner then led two scoring drives in the third quarter and ran in the go-ahead score in the fourth. It looked like Nebraska was going to retake the lead in the final two minutes, but Boddy-Calhoun ripped a ball right out of De’Mornay Pierson-El’s hands at the two-yard line to help seal the win. It was the biggest comeback for the Gophers since 2003, and their first win in Lincoln since 1960. They had gone 20 road games against ranked teams without a win, a run that dated back to 2000.
Progress is something that can’t always be measured, but Minnesota’s win on Saturday provides a point of reference. The AP ranking provides another measuring stick. After the game, Kill said he thought the rebuilding process would take seven or eight years. It’s not taking that long.
“I think you all know, living in Minnesota, we still have a lot of work to do,” Kill said. “We really do, in a lot of areas, to get where we want to be. I think it has happened a lot faster than I would certainly think. We came a long way, but that is because of the players and their effort in what they have done all offseason.”
Up next is another big test, with a trip to the Big Ten championship game on the line in Madison, Wisconsin. Whatever happens in that game, 2014 will be remembered as a year that Minnesota took a big step back into conference and national relevancy.
Other notes from the Top 25:
Baylor and TCU switched spots, with the Bears now at No. 5 and the Horned Frogs at No. 6. … The top four remained the same, but Alabama closed the gap on Florida State in terms of No. 1 votes. ... Ole Miss dropped 10 spots to No. 18. … Clemson, Louisville and Boise State joined Minnesota as newcomers to the poll, occupying Nos. 23-25, in that respective order.